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Calvin Coolidge, unlikely US President

By Michael Gerhardt

The Fourth of July is a special day for Americans, even for our presidents. Three presidents — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe — died on the Fourth of July, but only one — Calvin Coolidge — was born on that day (in 1872). Interestingly, Coolidge was perhaps the least likely of any of these to have attained the nation’s highest elective office. He was painfully shy, and he preferred books to people. Nonetheless, he successfully pursued a life in politics, becoming Governor of Massachusetts followed by two years as Warren Harding’s Vice-President. When Harding died of a heart attack, Coolidge became an unlikely president. Perhaps even more unlikely, he became not only an enormously popular one, but also the one whom Ronald Reagan claimed as a model.

Helen Keller with Calvin Coolidge, 1926. National Photo Company Collection. Public domain via Library of Congress.
Helen Keller with Calvin Coolidge, 1926. National Photo Company Collection. Public domain via Library of Congress.
Coolidge faced more than the usual challenge vice-presidents face when they have ascended to the presidency upon the death of an incumbent. They have not been elected to the presidency in their own right and must somehow secure the support of the American people and other national leaders on a basis other than their own election. Coolidge surprisingly handled this challenge well through his humility, quirky sense of humor, and, perhaps most importantly, integrity. Upon becoming president, Coolidge inherited one of the worst scandals ever to face a chief executive. He quickly agreed to the appointment of two special counsel charged with investigating the corruption with his administration and vowed to support their investigation, regardless of where it lead. Coolidge kept his word, clearing out of the administration any and all of the corruption uncovered within the administration, including removing Harding’s Attorney General. He went further to become the first president to hold as well as to broadcast regular press conferences. His actions won widespread acclaim and eased the way to Coolidge’s easy victory in the 1924 presidential election.

Over the course of his presidency, Coolidge either took or approved several initiatives, which have endured and changed the nature of the federal government. He was the first president to authorize federal regulation of aviation and broadcasting. He also signed into law the largest disaster relief authorized by the federal government until Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, he supported the creation of both the World Court and a pact, which sought (ultimately in vain) to outlaw war. Along the way, he became infamous for a razor-sharp sense of humor and peculiar commitment to saying as little as possible (in spite of his constant interaction with the press) and advocating as little regulation of business as possible. His administration became synonymous with the notion that the government that governs best governs least.

Coolidge, nonetheless, has become largely forgotten, partly because of his own choices and partly because of circumstances beyond his control. Just before his reelection, his beloved son died from blood poisoning originating from a blister on his foot. Coolidge never recovered and the presidency lost its luster. By 1928, he had no interest in running again for the presidency or in helping his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover succeed him in office.

Despite the successes he had in office, including his popularity, Coolidge paid little attention to racial problems and growing poverty during era. When the Great Depression hit, the nation and particularly the next president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, construed it as a reflection of the failed policies and foresight of both Hoover and his predecessor. Despondent over his son’s death, Coolidge did little to protect his legacy and respond to critics throughout the remainder of Hoover’s term. When he died shortly before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, he was largely dismissed or forgotten as a president whose time had come and gone. Nevertheless, on this Fourth of July, do not forget that when conservative leaders deride the growth of the federal government and proclaim the need for less regulation, they harken back not only to President Reagan but also to the man whom Reagan regarded as the model of a conservative leader. Calvin Coolidge’s birthday is as good a time as any to remember that his ideals are alive and well in America.

Michael Gerhardt is Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A nationally recognized authority on constitutional conflicts, he has testified in several Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and has published five books, including The Forgotten Presidents and The Power of Precedent. Read his previous blog posts on the American presidents.

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